Todd Harper is a fat man. He knows this because, pretty much every time he steps out onto the street, some stranger reminds him, or yells a fat insult at him.
Harper, visiting professor at the University of Baltimore gave an illuminating and often amusing GDC speech yesterday that addressed how games treat fat people. Overwhelmingly, he showed, games perpetuate cultural stereotypes about fatness that are hurtful and damaging, not just to fat people, but to everyone.
From Wario to Fat Princess, from Justine Divangelo to generic “Sumo Guy”, fat characters in games are generally shown as being obsessed with food and eating. They are sometimes delusional about their attractiveness. They are often engaged in a quest to become not fat. There is almost always an assumption of ugliness or physical grossness.
Fat characters are either villains or they are the butt of a joke. They are morally suspect and / or weak. Their fatness is their defining characteristic. They are rarely allowed to be comfortable with their bodies, and neither are the players. All this is entirely in sync with our broader culture.
Fat women characters are often shown as “failing” in their duty to be attractive to men. They are defined by their desire to be thin, to change into a different shape. They are both objects of possession and also objects of shame.
Even fat animals adhere to ugly stereotypes. The Pandaren in World of Warcraft are greedy, boozy and susceptible to “jolly fat dude” stereotypes.
There is always an assumption of ugliness or physical grossness
Harper said that it is not right for game developers to continue peddling portrayals that shame people. But there are positive examples.
He pointed to Ellie, an NPC in Borderlands 2, and Not So Tiny Dancer in Pokemon X & Y as more favorable examples of heavier characters. Both are fat, but they are also skilled in other areas, and do not seem at all bothered by their body shape. Their in-game peers do not define them by their fatness.
He advised game makers to “give us a space where our body doesn’t matter, for five seconds,” adding that, “I hear fat jokes from strangers almost every day.”
Fat characters should not be constantly portrayed as seeking to become thinner. They should not be automatically assumed to be worthy of disrespect. They should not be designed to make fat people feel “gross and unpretty.”
“Question associations,” he said. “Don’t reinforce negative stereotypes.” He stressed that “thinness is not the enemy, but cultures that punish people for not being an ‘ideal’ shape are.” Stereotypes about fat people are hurtful and contribute to problems like eating disorders.